January 30th, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; political rhetoric...

I had an e-mail recently from the_drifter, saying:
"... there's one discussion I'd be very interested to see: how to strategically pick your examples when you're trying to inspire people to take political action. I posted an entry in my own journal about this recently, when someone speaking to a mostly Jewish audience drew a parallel between aspects of the current situation in the U.S. and Nazi Germany in 1932. I believe the speaker's intention was to inspire outrage, but my primary reaction was anxiety and fear, and from the looks on other people's faces, I think they felt the same way. ... We live in a time when many people lack the knowledge, drive, or political will to act up against some seriously troubling violations of human rights and civil liberties, both at home or abroad. I think it would be extremely valuable to know how to talk about these situations in a way that inspires people to rise up in protection of others, rather than retreat for their own safety."

I've been thinking about whether I could find a way to start that discussion, and making very little progress -- mostly, I suspect, because I am so very sad about what's been going on in the Democratic presidential primary. And this post isn't intended to represent an adequate start for such a discussion. It's more like a preface, and a very tentative preface at that.

What happened that made it possible for me to write even a preface is that an example much like the one described by the_drifter suddenly came my way. I had just watched the tv coverage of Senator Ted Kennedy's endorsement speech for Barack Obama, with the introduction by Caroline Kennedy ... and suddenly MSNBC's Chris Matthews launched into a wild warble about how young people are always wondering what it was like at the start of the Sixties, and how this was what it had been like -- this kind of excitement, this kind of passion, this kind of inspiration, this kind of optimism, this kind of rhetoric ....

And the first thing that his warble brought to my mind wasn't the Summer of Love, and the flower children, and the psychedelics, and the spectacularly good rock music, and all the rest of that shiny array. The first thing that came to my mind was: "And then everybody got assassinated." Just those five words. JFK. Bobby Kennedy. Martin Luther King.

Chris Matthews gets carried away, and says dreadful things that he has to take back later, and he's the master of the Tannen School Of Talk Show Hosts, always interrupting and talking over the top of what his guests and co-hosts and panelists are trying to say. But I'm sure that his intention this time was to make his listeners feel the same delighted excitement he was feeling. In my case, that absolutely did not work.

In the_drifter's example, someone compared the situation in the U.S. today to the situation in Germany in 1932, and it backfired; instead of inspiring outrage, it inspired "anxiety and fear." In my own example, Matthews compared the situation surrounding the Kennedy endorsements and the Obama candidacy to the start of the fabled Sixties, and (for me) it backfired. I knew what he meant, and I vividly remember the events and the incredible excitement and optimism he was being so loud and lyrical about -- and what his carrying on brought to my mind was: "And then everybody got assassinated." Anxiety and fear, for sure. Because there are people who are determined that no president of the United States shall ever be a woman, and that no president of the United States shall ever be a person of color, and I am by no means convinced that it's possible to protect Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama from those people.